Days 232 - 239: Italy

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Europe » Italy
September 14th 2007
Published: October 18th 2007
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Our introduction to the 'eternal city' was a bit on the crap side to be honest! The flight was fine and we arrived full of beans and enthusiasism, however after about 40 minutes of milling around aimlessly waiting for a bus we had lost a bit of fizz - this was compounded by the fact that there was NOWHERE to get cash out at the airport, so we made our way to the Underground station on the assumption that surey there would be a cash machine at the station.

But, you guessed it, there was not. We had a grand total of 35cents and needed 2euros to get to central Rome! Bugger... However Martin cleverly spotted some British tourists and managed to swap some 2 pound coins for a few Euro! (Phewww!) Eventually we made our way to the central terminal in Rome, where we had only to take a bus to our hostel - no problem right!? Yeeeaaaahhhhh..... OK. We foolishly thought that a cash machine would work properly in a busy mall, however fate conspired against us AGAIN and the machine ate our card 😞 (was a ridiculous mission trying to get someone out to the machine, so we just got money on Martin's card and then fled to our hotel, where we could hopefully cancel the card stuck in the machine.) After a long bus ride we finally arrived at the Hostel, which was quite ridiculous in itself - there were RULES plasterered on every available surface in the hostel - don't touch this, do touch this, be quite, be loud, breathe, don't breathe etc etc - it was waaaay over the top.

We got settled into out spartan room and then popped out to try and cancel our card... which was of course a pain in the arse too!!! Several international call centres just didn't work etc - but eventually we got it sorted - having wasted most of the day - on the upside though - we ate heaps of yummy GELATO!!! Which even managed to put a smile on poor sad Kristi's face!!!

It was about 3pm by the time we were free to explore, but we made the most of it and buzzed around the Vatican and St Peters Basilica and then hopped on a tour bus to cruise around the rest of the 'big' sites. We had a very enjoyable afternoon, soaking up the amazing culture and landmarks of this ancient city (Colleseum, Spanish stairs, Trevi Fountain etc etc), which luckily is small enough to see a great deal in a short time!

By the time bed time had rolled around we had seen the majority of the 'must-see's' in Roma and had also consumed 4 portions of gelato each 😊 So after a rough start, we ended up having a pretty good afternoon in Rome!

The next morning we met Kristi's parents and their friend Rowena at their hotel (they had just finished a tour around Italy) and headed off to the airport to pick up our hire car for the drive up to the Tuscany/Umbria border - where we were to stay in a villa for the next week 😊 Was quite trippy meeting the Mclarens in the middle of Rome, especially after they had stayed at our flat in Notting Hil for over a week while we were in the middle east!

There was a fairly lengthy delay at the airport, due to huge queues for rental cars, but eventually we were given our Opel Zafira and let loose on the roads of Italy! The drive up was very beautiful, but basically uneventful - no crashes, road-rage, wrong turns etc - a bit disappointing really! We arrived at our Villa in the late afternoon and spent ages exploring every inch of the house and garden (and pool!)! It's a fantastic place - much bigger inside than it looks from the exterior. It was just as we had imagined - nestled amongst endless tuscan fields and cypress trees, isloated and yet close enough to several cute villages for easy access to supplies 😊 The housekeeper even left us with a couple of bottles of wine and some pasta and sauce for our first meal 😊

We had a nice relaxing evening, only popping out once to race down to the supermarket for a few bits and pieces before they closed (more wine, olives, cheese etc - the essentials!). The next morning we woke to the gentle sound of Gunshots!! That's right, its hunting season in this area and the local men all trudge around the fields on the weekends shooting anything that moves! We are not kidding - 10 truffle hunters were accidently killed by hunters last year alone!! Still it was quite entertaining - from the safety of our deck!!

Our first full day at the villa was a Sunday so not too much was open, we lazed a round the house and got settled in, eventually emerging in the afternoon to check out a few local towns, the closest town of Chuisi was more or less shut, as was Vaiano, so we ended up in Castiglione del Lago - which is a gorgeous old walled town, right on the edge of the Lake Trasimeno. We explored the walled area on top of the hill and drove around the larger town for a while, and bought Gelato by the lakes edge - before returning to the Villa for some relaxing time (and wine!). We returned to castiglione del Lago for dinner at a recommended restaurant on the lake side. The restaurant La Cappinina was wonderful - the owner was a very charismatic ex-truck driver who went out of his way to help us make choices and enjoy our time - he was constantly singing the praises of his wife/head chef, who he claimed was without equal on the lakeside! He may well have been right, the food was beautiful and the service fantastic - we headed home with full belies and grins on our faces! It would not be hard to live in Tuscany!!!

The next day we elected to exlpore the wider region of Tuscany so we piled into the car early (ish) and headed to the main town of Montepulciano - famed for its hill top location and old world charm. We were not disappointed! With Evan driving and Martin navigating (everyone knows girls can't read maps!) we made good time to this picturesque town, high on a hill top. We parked about halfway up and walked the narrow streets towards the summit - the shops were exceptional! Beth, Rowena and Krsiti could have easily spent A LOT longer there! There was an amazing range of new and old, with some shops looking as though they haven't changed in centuries (and probably haven't!). The view from the top of Montepulciano was incredible (Monte is the highest town in Tuscany) Kristi found a run-down villa that she wants to do up, fortunately it's more like a castle and only costs about 2 million euro!

Our next stop was the city of Sienna (2nd only to Florence in size in Tuscany). Sienna is a fantastic city, even though it was pouring with rain when we arrived. We eventually found a park and explored the city centre, which lies within a huge set of walls. The main plaza is amazing, surrounded by thousand year old buildings - once a year they have a crazy horse race around the plaza - in which several horses and jockeys are injured or killed - yikes! We had a nice lunch right in the plaza and watched a weird german entertainer messing with the tourists... pretty funny, but quite odd at the same time!! Sienna was awesome, but we decided to push on and visit Cortona before heading home.

Cortona was really cool, a very small town (surprise, surprise - on top of a hill!!) We were hugely amused by the ranks of old men sitting on park benches, watching the world go by - it was like something out of a postcard! We explored the main town squares and had a coffee/hot chocolate when the rain set in again. We all liked Cortona a lot, it was just so relaxed compared to the bussling tourist mecca of Sienna.

We arrived back at the villa at a reasonable hour and had a deliscious pasta and mince meal coutesy of Beth and Rowena!!!

The next morning we decided to explore the region of Umbria - first stop Perugia - the capital of Umbria. Our main problem when we arrived was finding a park (again!) however we eventually found one after driving through some VERY dodgy road that we were sure would stop in dead ends - some were so steep it was scary (Perugia is, of course, on top of a hill!) After finding a parking space and a healthy walk, we spent several hours in the main city centre - Perugia is another great city, a real mix of old and new - and exceedingly difficult to get in and out of!! However we managed to visit the 'underground city' discovered recently beneath the streets of Perugia - a bit of an anti-climax as it was just a few brick tunnels - that looked like a subway system! We all enjoyed the city, but were pretty happy to head off to the tiny hamlet of Spello in the early afternoon.

Spello is a walled town on top of a small hill and is barely even a town in terms of size - however it is packed with olde world charm and was as quaint as anywhere we had been - tons of great photo opportunities! The town is sleepy in an appealing way - although you would probably go stir crazy living there, it was lovely to visit and soak up the quiet life of Italy. The town itself features many narrow cobblestone paths, lined with potted plants and creeping vines and unspoilt by road traffic, as most of Spello is too compact for vehicle access. Plus we saw some incedible estates on the way, and some awesome ferraris!!

The final stop of the day was Asissi (which is actually between Perugia and Spello) - this hilltop (!) town is the birth place of the immortal St Francis and features a hugely impressive monastry. We found a park easily (a nice change) and spent a few hours exploring (Evan, Beth and Rowena had actually visited this town on their tour...) Asissi is another very cool town, and only downside being the rapid drop in temperature which sped up our decision to head home!!

It's hard to do justice to all of these individual towns, each have their own charm and appeal - we thoroughly enjoyed each in its own distinct way.

We arrived home to the villa after a quick supermarket stop and had delicious homemade pizza (Chef Martin) - we were all pretty pooped and retired as soon as possible!

The next day we had a lazy morning and then decided to take a final day trip out to the famous hamlet of Bagno Vagnoni (a tiny tiny town - famous for its thermal springs). The drive was scenic and pleasant and we arrived at about 12pm - we were staggered by how tiny the hamlet was!! But it was extremely pretty - the centre of the town was a large thermal pool, surrounded by cafe's and restaurants (about 4 in all!). The town was on top of a steep hill and there were thermal waterfalls cascading down the hill into large pools where people could swim and relax (the main pool in town was blocked off to swimmers!!!). The whole area is gorgeous and we enjoyed the snails pace of life at Bagno - we had a light meal (we arrived at Siesta time - uh-oh!) and then headed back - via the famous route of La Foce.

La Foce is a region that provides a magic view of a winding road dotted with cyprus tress - if you have seen a postcard of Tuscany, you have probably seen this world famous road - it is pictuesque in the extreme! We had many false alarms driving along - thinking we had seen the La Foce road - but eventually Rowena spotted it when were still in the valley - after much disagreement we reached the top of the valley and realized that this was indeed the famous stretch of Tuscan landscape!!

After a host of photos, we headed home to a relaxing evening at the villa. Beth made a chilli dinner, which was too hot for most of us, he he, however we had tonnes of antipasto so it was all good 😊

The next day was our last full day in the villa - Martin was determined to do nothing at all - but Beth, Evan, Kristi and Rowena went to Castiglione Del Lago to take a boat trip to an island in the middle of the lake - Isola Maggiore.

For our last night we returned to La Cappinina restaurant and had another fantastic meal - the truck-driver/waiter gave us free samples of new dishes and a delicious free sorbet dessert 😊 This place is really great - yummy, yummy food and an awesome atmosphere!

The next morning we had a ridiculously early start in order to get to the airport at Pisa, where Kristi and I caught the plane up to Edinburgh, while Beth, Evan and Rowena drove on up to St Margherita for a few days at Porto Fina before heading up to the South of France - Nice! It was a pretty sad farewell, I think everyone could easily have spent more time in the villa!!

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